If you thought other weddings you’ve been to had a lot of traditions, just wait until you attend your first military wedding. With a slew of unique customs, specific dress codes, and even requirements for invitation wording, there’s etiquette to navigate that you may not have seen before. Plus, different branches of the military have different variations of these traditions.
Like all nuptial ceremonies, military weddings are celebratory and meaningful events but with an added air of patriotism. They're meant to honor anyone who has served or is currently serving in any branch of the U.S. military, including those enlisted, active and retired officers, and cadets at an academy. Incorporating long-standing traditions makes military weddings that much more special, and there's a lot more guidance when it comes to making decisions about the venue, decorations, recessional song, and more.
Wondering what to expect at a military wedding? We called upon Amber Chaib, a U.S. Navy veteran, to break it down and offer insight that will make both planning and attending a military wedding a breeze.
Meet the Expert
What should I wear to a military wedding?
If members of the wedding party or other guests are also members of the military, they should be advised via the invitation, the couple's wedding website, or in some other manner as to what the bride and/or groom will be wearing, and their attire should be the same level of formality. Chaib adds that both veterans and retirees of the military can wear their service dress uniforms for weddings and other special occasions of the same caliber. Guests who are not in the military should wear clothing that matches the dress code and formality of the event.
Where is a military wedding held?
Anyone hosting a military wedding has the option to host the ceremony at a military chapel or on academy grounds. All service academies have more than one chapel for members of different religions. However, the couple may choose to host their ceremony at their regular place of worship or another venue.
Who officiates a military wedding?
For those couples who choose to marry at a military chapel, a military chaplain will officiate the ceremony. Chaplains are commissioned officers who are paid by their branch of service, so the couple does not have to pay them, though a donation to the chapel is encouraged. Couples may choose to have a civilian clergy member assist the chaplain in the ceremony.
How long is a military wedding ceremony?
This depends on the couple's personal, cultural, and religious preferences and the type of ceremonial rituals they choose to partake in. Some couples choose to participate in every military wedding tradition, which can make for a longer ceremony, while others incorporate only a few.
Should I bring a gift?
This would depend on the couple's preference, but many couples will register for gifts. If not, consider a gift with a military theme. When in doubt, look to the invitation for directions regarding gifts.
Below, learn all about the traditions, plus what to plan for and expect at a military wedding ceremony.
Seating Based on Military Status and Rank
During the ceremony, commanding officers should sit near the front, either with or directly behind the couple’s families. At the reception, military members should be seated by rank (captains with captains, sergeants with sergeants, etc.). Military personnel may also be seated together at a table of honor near the head table, or they can sit with the civilian guests if the couple prefers.
Each branch of service has specific seating guidelines, but overall, high-ranking officers (generals, captains) are given positions of the highest honor both at the ceremony and reception.
A Flag on Display
An American flag and the bride or groom's unit standard are usually on display during the ceremony as a sign of respect. Protocol dictates that this should be displayed to the left of the officiant when viewed by the gathered guests. In addition to the flag, the couple may choose to incorporate other patriotic decorations and colors into their ceremony and reception.
If the ceremony is being held at a military chapel, the couple will have to get permission to decorate from the chaplain first.
A Bride or Groom in Uniform
If either or both partners are in the military, they have the option of wearing a full ceremonial dress instead of civilian clothing. For the groom, this might be dress whites (in the summer) or dress blues (in the winter). For the bride, this could be a ceremonial uniform or a traditional wedding dress.
If either is an officer, their evening dress uniform is incredibly formal and should be reserved for a white-tie affair while dinner or mess dress uniforms are appropriate for black-tie events. Dress blues are the best choice for a wedding with a cocktail or formal dress code.
The Rules of Grooming
If the groom chooses to be wed in full military uniform, they'll need to adhere to the unique regulatory standards that each branch holds, including universal grooming standards, such as shaving. Chaib explains that all men in uniform must be clean-shaven, and these same rules apply to any vets or retirees planning to don a uniform.
"If you're a woman marrying a male retiree or vet with a sexy beard and want him to wear his uniform, he's going to have to get rid of it again," she says. "I think we're all aware that men can get pretty attached to their beards, so that may or may not require some negotiation. However, the opportunity to again wear a uniform that holds so much national and personal significance may be a major motivation."
The Groom and Groomsmen Won't Have Boutonnieres
Out of respect, boutonnieres are not allowed to be pinned onto uniforms, no matter the formality. This applies to both the groom and groomsmen. Any military decorations they might have will serve as the "boutonniere" in this case. The bride, however, may carry a bouquet, even if opting to wear a uniform instead of a traditional wedding dress.
Groomsmen in White Gloves
Any member of the wedding party in uniform who is carrying a saber or cutlass, whether an officer or enlisted personnel, must wear white gloves. This is typically required of military members for most ceremonial events. The groom and best man are exempt, however, as they will be handling the rings.
If the groom carries a saber or cutlass, the bride will stand to the groom's right at the altar to avoid the blade rather than on the left, which is traditional at non-military weddings.
Military Recessional Music
While most non-military couples choose a classical or modern song for their wedding recessional, many military members will choose to play their service branch's song for their ceremony exit. For example, "The Army Goes Rolling Along" is the official song of the U.S. Army, while "Anchors Aweigh" serves as the fight song of the U.S. Navy.
If the bride and groom are members of the military but serve in different branches, they can choose to forego the tradition altogether or pick another military song. Similarly, they may play patriotic tunes during the reception.
The Saber Arch Exit
If one or both of the newlyweds are commissioned officers, they may exit the ceremony beneath an archway of sabers held by other military members, known as the Arch of Sabers (or the Arch of Swords if they're in the Navy or Marine Corps). If the partners are noncommissioned officers or enlisted personnel, they will instead use a variation known as the Arch of Rifles.
The arch serves as a pledge of loyalty to the couple by their military family and often ends with the final two military members lowering their sabers to prevent the couple from passing. Traditionally, brides who aren't in the military may be ceremonially tapped on the behind with a saber before the couple is allowed to pass—it's considered a way to "welcome" them into the military family. Though less common than it used to be, it's still practiced today, and brides can request to skip this part if they're not comfortable with it.
Cake-Cutting With a Sword
The sword cake-cutting is perhaps one of the most recognizable military wedding traditions. If the bride or groom is an officer, they will use a ceremonial military sword to cut their wedding cake instead of a knife or cake server.
Traditionally, the military spouse presents the sword to their partner before they cut the cake. Then, customarily, the bride places a hand underneath the groom's on the handle of the sword, and they cut through the cake together; however, this can be updated according to the couple's preferences.